Reports of the Pay Phone’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

“END OF AN ERA: NEW YORK CITY’S LAST PAYPHONE TO BE REMOVED,” the city announced a week ago, in a press release. A person might be forgiven for believing that the city’s last pay phone was about to be removed. A ceremony was held in Times Square, in front of the pay phone in question. City officials gave little eulogies. Tributes were offered to the phone booth’s replacement, the Link: those tall, silver, monolith-like things that offer Internet access and speaker-phone calls and, in years past, were taken over by men who used them to watch porn. Television cameras captured a crane hoisting the pay phone onto a flatbed truck. Remembrances were penned. “CITY YANKS LAST BOOTH,” the Post declared.

Buried in the city’s announcement, however, was an odd bit of backpedalling: this was the last public phone booth—except for four others, along West End Avenue. Here was a strange matter of metaphysics—Schrödinger’s phone. Apparently, the phone booth is both extinct—a relic of bygone days—and also somehow still around, like Rudy Giuliani or the Knicks.

The mystery ran deeper. “I know where you can find at least five more in Manhattan,” a guy named Mark Thomas said the other day. “I don’t want to say where.” Thomas, perhaps the city’s foremost pay-phone ace, is a pianist who runs a Web site called the PayPhone Project. (Recent headlines include “The SEX Payphones of 42nd Street are Finally Gone.”) Thomas had recently spied a city-owned pay phone in Flushing and heard rumors of others in the Bronx and Coney Island. A couple of days after the city’s ceremony, he’d visited two public pay phones within blocks of Times Square.

An amateur telecommunications sleuth set out to get answers. But how to contact the persons of interest? “Because of the copper landline, call quality is so good on the pay phones compared with anything we have now,” Thomas advised. “You can really tell a difference.” Bingo. The sleuth deputized Thomas as a guide and headed north, toward West End Avenue.

The Upper West Side booths, which are of the Superman variety, survived in part owing to the agitations of a phone-loving Upper West Side curmudgeon, who persuaded political allies to grant the phones protected status. They’d recently been renovated, with new glass enclosures. Thomas found them lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. “All the phone booths in New York were generally characterized by smelling like pee and poop,” he said. But would they work? The phone on Ninetieth Street had a dial tone. “Please deposit. Twenty-five cents. For. Three. Minutes,” an automated voice said. Thomas plopped a quarter into the slot. “Please deposit. Twenty-five cents. For. Three. Minutes,” the voice said again. A second quarter was summarily eaten. A final try yielded progress. “Thank you!” the voice chimed. Thomas looked excited. Then: “There’s a problem processing your call.”

The pay phone on 100th Street was no better, but the one on 101st Street showed signs of life. The operator voice asked for a credit card. After about six minutes of button pushing, a “phone plan” was purchased. Cost: fifteen dollars. Length: indeterminate. “You have. Two hours. Sixty minutes,” the voice said.

The first call was to the city’s Office of Technology and Innovation, which had co-organized the farewell ceremony. A spokesperson answered. “Aside from those four you’re at, all the pay phones under our purview have been removed,” she explained. As to how, then, the Times Square ceremony had counted as the removal of the city’s last pay phone, she said, “We were marking the end of one era and the beginning of another. We wanted to do a public event.” A dog came by the booth sniffing. A car honked. “I can’t understand you very well,” the spokesperson said. “You’re breaking up every other syllable.”

Foiled. Perhaps a Link would offer a better connection. At a kiosk a block over, outside the Metro Diner, a call went in to Mark Levine, the borough president. He’d attended the ceremony and hailed Link as the future. A woman answered. Trucks rumbled down Broadway. In order to be heard, the sleuth stood with his nose almost touching the machine, screaming into the speaker. The exasperated woman on the other end couldn’t make out everything. “Sir, this is a busy line,” she said.

A kiosk call to the City Council member Gale Brewer—shouted, again—seemed to be clearer. But then the line suddenly went dead. The Link had timed out the call. “That’s my fault,” Thomas said. “Long story short, as a prank I found a way to blast really loud music out of these things.” Specifically, he’d loop the Mister Softee jingle from multiple kiosks, then walk away. “You could hear it for, like, three blocks,” he said. “I still don’t know how this happened, but it started playing back at half speed: duh-ding, duhhh-duhhh-duhhh, duhhh-ding, duhh-ding! ’ Some of those calls lasted four hours.” As a countermeasure, in 2018 CityBridge, the company that operates pay phones and Links for the city, added a timer feature.

Before calling it a day, the sleuths tried Nick Colvin, CityBridge’s C.E.O. After one call failed, two went straight to voice mail. A spokesperson for CityBridge called back the next day, via cell phone. “I’m sorry that your quarters got eaten up!” she said. She couldn’t explain how the Times Square pay phone was the city’s last remaining one, but she had good news. She’d checked with the maintenance team, who’d reported that all the phone booths, including the quarter-eaters, were, as a matter of fact, working. ♦

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